First Monday

Digital Humanities and the IMLS/NEH Advancing Knowledge Partnership by Brett Bobley



Good morning everybody. I am Brett Bobley from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I would like to thank Joyce and the IMLS for putting on this terrific conference. I don’t want to steal any of IMLS’ thunder, but I just wanted everyone to know that NEH program officers will be waiting in the lobby after the conference. They will have checkbooks in hand and will be making grants to you on the spot.

[Laughter and applause]

See if you can beat that.

That was a terrific overview from Steve Wheatley of the ACLS about the whole cyberinfrastructure issue. We, at the NEH, are working very hard with our new Digital Humanities Initiative to try to answer and try to respond to many of those recommendations that Steve just showed you on the screen. We launched this initiative less than a year ago, and just in the last year alone we have put five new grant programs in place. We are also doing all kinds of outreach, speaking engagements, and the like. We are really trying to focus the agency on making these digital humanities grants, these areas where technology and humanities meet.

Steve already said this quite eloquently, but let me repeat him and say that the NEH believes that technology will allow the scholar to do things that they could not do before. To do things not just faster and easier, but to come to conclusions and do scholarly work that could not be done without technology. That’s why it is really important that we put this infrastructure in place.

So let me tell you a little bit about what we are trying to do here. First of all, in terms of the cyberinfrastructure report, on the screen I have a few quotations from the report just to show you how we are trying very hard to meet the formal suggestions made by the ACLS. For example, the report suggested federal funding agencies and private foundations establish programs to develop and support expertise in digital humanities. Obviously we are doing that. There is a suggestion that universities and university consortia develop new digital humanities centers, and I will tell you a little about what we are doing to try to promote the creation of new digital humanities centers, like the one that Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University will tell you about in a few minutes during his presentation.

The report suggests specifically that NSF, NEH, IMLS, Mellon and other agencies should support the development of tools. That is another important part and I will tell you about some of our grant programs for developing tools. And they also suggest that NEA, NEH and IMLS should work together to promote collaboration, and of course our new Advancing Knowledge program does exactly that. I would anticipate the NEH and IMLS working together even more closely in years to come. And I should note that we are also in discussions right now with NSF and the Department of Energy and other grant–making agencies to try to put together more joint programs, because what we are finding more and more is that important work is interdisciplinary in nature. And I don’t want you to be boxed in by the fact that the federal government seems to have these narrow categories to apply for this kind of grant or that kind of grant. We have to break down those walls and make it easier for your projects to get funded if they are good projects. It does not matter if they are collaboration between people in different disciplines.

On the screen are the five new programs we put into place in the past year: Digital Humanities Start–Up Grants, Advancing Knowledge: The IMLS/NEH Digital Partnership, Digital Humanities Challenge Grants, Digital Humanities Workshops, and Digital Humanities Fellowships. I am going to go ahead and talk about a few of these that are most relevant to this crowd. The Digital Humanities Start–up Grants is a brand new program. It is small, $30,000 maximum, and it is designed to be innovative. It is designed to help small projects get going to create prototypes or plans for a larger project. I chose the name “start–up grant” because it reminded me of the tech world, a tech start–up like the two Apple Computer guys in their garage. If you have an innovative idea for something involving digital humanities — you could be from a library or museum or university, you could even be an individual scholar — we’ll take it from anybody — if you have an innovative idea, we want to hear about it and we want to give you funding to get your idea going, do some planning and do some prototyping.

I think one of the problems with federal grants, in general, is that they tend to be quite conservative. We tend to use peer review as a way of mitigating risk. That is a good thing. You don’t want your tax dollars to be given out without any thought, but at the same time a really innovative idea, by definition, is one that is a bit risky and sometimes the peer review process will miss those. And we want to try to use these small dollar grants as a way of giving innovative ideas a little bit of a push to see if they will pan out and be something that can be very beneficial to the field, as a whole.

These are cross–divisional. If you’ve ever applied to the NEH before, you know that our grant programs fall under divisions, like Research, Preservation and Access, Public Programs, and Education. But with these Start–Up Grants, we didn’t want to box you in. So we don’t care if your project is half a public program and half preservation, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Just send it in; we want to see it. It is completely cross–divisional.

There are two deadlines per year. We had one deadline back in November. The next one is April 3. We really encourage you to check us out. Obviously all these guidelines are on our Web site,, so please feel free to go there to learn more.

The next program I want to tell you a little bit about is Advancing Knowledge. That is the program that is a joint collaboration between IMLS and NEH. It is aimed at fostering large–scale digital humanities collaborations among museums, libraries, archives and universities. There are a few interesting things about this grant program. One is that it requires collaboration. You have to have at least one library, one university, one museum, one university, one archive working with another institution. You cannot come in by yourself. We are requiring you to work with other organizations and to work out an internal collaboration before you apply. We really feel that collaboration is such a key in any humanities work. We want to see libraries and universities, museum, archives, working together on projects.

Another thing that is interesting about this program is that it is not very prescriptive. It is very, very open, like the digital humanities start–up program. We are not telling you exactly what we want you to do. We want you to be kind of blue sky and think of innovative digital humanities projects that can use collaboration. So it could be almost anything. You come up with great ideas, send them in to us, and we will talk about how the collaboration could help the field.

The third thing is the idea that this is kind of an example for the field. One requirement if you get a grant is that we ask you to write up a white paper in which you explain what we did, how your collaboration works, what worked, what didn’t. Then you actually have to publish the white paper on the Web so that other libraries and museums and archives can read what happened and learn from you, because we want these collaborations to be examples for the field that other people can read about and learn from your mistakes.

These have a deadline of March 27, and typically the maximum is $350,000, and again the guidelines are on our Web site, so please check them out.

Another brand new program — we just put these guidelines up the other day — is our Digital Humanities Fellowships. Like the ACLS we also have a fellowship program specifically designed for scholars doing digital humanities work. One of the keys of this program is to try to hook up fellows with digital humanities centers, like Roy’s for example.

We feel that the days of the humanities scholar who works all by himself or herself alone in a dark cavern in the library are over. We really need to promote humanities scholars working with librarians, working with computer scientists or university personnel in all kinds of different fields. One of the ideas behind this fellowship is to support travel and to get you hooked up with other campuses where you can work in a collaborative environment. Then after your fellowship is over, you can maintain that relationship once you are back to your home campus, and spread the seeds of humanities work all throughout the country.

One last one I want to tell you about is our Digital Humanities Challenge Grants program. Our Challenge Grants program is designed to build infrastructure. You can use it establish an endowment, for staffing, for making fellowships, and many other things. One of the principal reasons we have this Digital Humanities version of our Challenge Grants is to fund digital humanities centers. So for example, if your campus is considering putting together a digital humanities center, please come see us. The challenge grants can go up to a million dollars and it is an excellent vehicle for specifically creating these centers, these multidisciplinary centers that promote digital humanities scholarship.

Now I also want to tell you about a couple of our non–DHI programs. As you know, the NEH has funded a lot of digital programs for many, many years, and part of our Digital Humanities Initiative is to promote existing programs that we already have that do digital humanities work. So I will tell you about a couple of them really quickly.

The program that’s on screen now, Preservation and Access: Humanities Collections and Resources, is actually a new name. If you have applied to us before, we used to have two programs, one called Preserving and Creating Access to Collections, and another called Reference Materials. We’ve merged those into one new program and given them a new name. But this program can be used for all kinds of things — digitizing collections, preservation reformatting, conservation treatment, etc. The awards are up to $350,000 and this particular program, like I said, includes a wide variety of things that I hope would be beneficial to a lot of people in the room today.

Another one that I want to bring up is our Education and Training program in our Preservation and Access division. I was in one of the pre–conferences yesterday where we were talking a lot about metadata harvesting and the fact that, while very important, a lot of mid– and smaller–sized libraries and museums didn’t often have the technical expertise and the technical knowledge that is needed. A program like this, Education and Training, can be used to help put together training materials and training classes and such that are used in the preservation and access environment. So if there is anyone out there, for example, who is really sharp on this stuff and you would like to set up a program where you train the field in preservation and access, in digital technology, that kind of thing, this might be a grant program for you to consider. These awards are up to $550,000 and the deadline is in July.

One other program of note is our Research and Development program also in Preservation and Access. This program allows you to develop technical standards, best practices, tools for preserving and creating access to collections, and to explore scientific and technical methods of preserving humanities collections. So if you are doing some cutting edge R&D work in the area of preservation and access, this is the program for you. We really want to hear about your innovative ideas. This program has awards up to $350,000 and the deadline is going to be in July. Again I encourage you to check out our Web site for more details, as we are really interested in hearing from you.

For more info my e–mail address is bbobley [at] neh [dot] gov and the general e–mail address for the Digital Humanities Initiative is dhi [at] neh [dot] gov. I really look forward to seeing your applications coming into the NEH and thank you all very much. End of article


Questions and Answers

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I’m Bruce Zuckerman from the University of Southern California. This is primarily for Mr. Bobley. It is going to sound like looking a gift horse in the mouth, but my reaction to the initiatives is that the money is a problem here. It is not enough, and I will explain to you why. Because at my university you get a grant from a government agency, they lop off 60 percent before you say hello. Now there are strategies around this. For example, we just got a leadership grant this year from the IMLS, but before we got that grant I went to my dean and said that I was not going to apply for the grant if you take that kind of hit off of us. It is not worth it. The work we are trying to do, from the standpoint of humanities professors like me, is expensive.

If you are doing something in health or you are doing something as we do, and we collaborate with people in engineering or in the computer science department, they don’t even blink at numbers that are really big. And when you get the overhead cost off of those numbers they still have very big numbers. Our numbers are small, relatively speaking, but we are still being treated the same way the sciences are. In other words, you got a small grant, we are still taking 60 percent off.

As I said, on a case by case basis sometimes you can negotiate this, but it is still a problem, it is a big problem. It makes people like me who are trying to build big tools and big collaborations hesitate to go through the hurdles of an NEH grant because, in the final analysis, the payoff won’t give us enough to do what we need to do.

MR. BOBLEY: I am certainly in complete agreement with you. There is no doubt that digital technology grants take a lot of money and there is no doubt that large scale collaboration requires a lot of money. I think you bring up two issues. One is obviously the fact that most universities take money off the top —

MR. ZUCKERMAN: A lot of money.

MR. BOBLEY: A lot of money. The other issue, generally speaking, is funding. One reason why we at NEH are trying to collaborate with other federal agencies is the money issue. By working with IMLS, by working with agencies like NSF and the Department of Energy, our hope is to be able to leverage grant funds more efficiently. I can only completely agree with you, that a lot of these programs will take money and we are going to do our best to find some.

MS. COPELAND: Cynthia Copeland, New York Historical Society. The question again goes back to funding. You have a lot of initiatives for start–ups and projects, but what happens with sustainability and maintenance? That’s where we come into a lot of problems. You get these great projects going, good collaborations, you are there and then the money dries up and everybody has to go away and you have this community of folks who have come to rely on your projects, and they are not there any more. So what can we do about that?

MR. BOBLEY: That is a very good point. Sustainability is an incredibly important key. We would encourage anyone out there applying for these grants to please give us a plan for sustainability because we certainly don’t want to see the project last for two or three years and just disappear.

I think one of the ideas behind collaborations, though, is to see if that can be helpful in sustainability. We have talked a lot at this conference about the fact that collaboration, particularly for smaller organizations, can be a real money–saving way of getting business done.

For example, if you are a smaller museum or library looking to digitize your archive, there are a lot of economies of scale that can be gained by working together in a collaborative environment. Instead of having to buy five servers, you may only have to buy two, etc. And we feel that collaboration is one way we can help maintain sustainability. One thing that we have noted in the past is sometimes we would give a grant to a scholar, for example, who would create some kind of repository or Web site, but because they weren’t working with, for example, their campus library, they didn’t have a method of sustainability. Libraries are an excellent resource on a campus for sustainability. We would like to see more university scholars working with their library on their project as a way of promoting long–term sustainability.

Is it still an issue? Absolutely. We need to make sure that these programs can continue on for a long time.


About the author

Brett Bobley is Director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at the National Endowment for the Humanities.



Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, First Monday.

Copyright ©2007, Brett Bobley.

Digital Humanities and the IMLS/NEH Advancing Knowledge Partnership by Brett Bobley
First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July 2007),